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Fires resulting from unchecked deforestation are poisoning the air millions of people breathe, affecting health throughout the Brazilian Amazon, the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), the Institute for Health Policy Studies (IEPS), and Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Fires and deforestation in the Amazon increased dramatically during 2019, President Jair Bolsonaro’s first year in office, and 2020 is already proving to be worse, the groups found.

The 50-page report, “‘The Air is Unbearable’: Health Impacts of Deforestation-Related Fires in the Brazilian Amazon,” uses official health and environmental data to estimate that 2,195 hospitalizations due to respiratory illness are attributable to the 2019 fires. Nearly 500 involved infants under 1 year old, and more than 1,000 involved people over age 60. These hospitalizations represent only a fraction of the total health impact from fires, as millions of people were exposed in 2019 to harmful levels of air pollution resulting from the deforestation-related burning of the Amazon.

“Until Brazil effectively curbs deforestation, the fires can be expected to continue every year, furthering the destruction of the Amazon and poisoning the air that millions of Brazilians breathe,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “The Bolsonaro administration’s persistent failure to tackle this environmental crisis has immediate consequences for the health of Amazon residents and long-term consequences for global climate change.”

Fires don’t occur naturally in the Amazon rainforest. People deliberately set fires after cutting down trees, often illegally, to clear lands for agriculture, cattle grazing, or land speculation. Fire activity often peaks in August or September. The smoke is rich in fine particulate matter, a pollutant linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, as well as premature death. Children, older people, those who are pregnant, and people with pre-existing lung or heart diseases are especially vulnerable.

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